Alice was 70 years of age when she retired from work. Far from spending her golden years relaxing, though, what this really meant was that she was no longer physically able to work and had to rely on her Social Security check as her only income.
Alice lived by herself, in a small apartment she kept neat and tidy. She spent most of her days on her own, reading, tending to her plants, with the occasion bus trip shopping. She had some close friends from her prior work, but mostly they stayed in touch by phone.
Many years earlier, she had divorced from her only husband. They had had three children from the marriage, but they were spread out over the United States. She couldn't afford to travel to see them; they did not visit and rarely spoke with her. Alice didn't hold this against them, though. Alice had always been fiercely independent, and she raised her children to be likewise. She gave her children the freedom to be who they wanted to be, and she didn't regret that now. She also knew, practically speaking, they were busy raising their families, just as she had raised them.
Alice had worked her entire life, mostly as a nurse. She had few possessions and no retirement accounts. She'd saved a portion of her income with an eye to retirement, but some recent expensive health challenges had forced her to deplete her savings. Her physical health had stabilized, but her fiscal health had not.
Alice had no estate plan. She believed that planning was irrelevant because she had no large assets to distribute, and her family did not seem to care about her personal belongings.
Alice did not know that estate planning would also mean coming up with a plan if she suffered another health challenge and was unable to live on her own in her apartment.
If she had known of this benefit, Alice could have prepared an Advanced Health Care Directive and a financial Power of Attorney. With these two documents, she could have designated a friend to help her through an illness-giving them input over her medical care and finances until she got back on her feet.
As it happened, Alice suffered an unexpected stroke that severely impaired her ability to hear, speak and walk. For a time, it prevented her from living on her own. Alice was hospitalized and then sent to a nursing home near her apartment.
But because she lived alone, no one that knew what had happened.
Alice's friends and family members were never notified of her condition, and they continued to live their lives, unaware of her situation.
When her friends finally realized that she was in the hospital, they tried to help, but they couldn't because they had no legal authority to act relating to her health care.
Authorities eventually arranged for a guardianship over Alice. Strangers-not Alice, her family or her friends-had control over her life.
Eventually, she improved enough to leave the nursing home. But, by then, she had been evicted from her apartment for not paying the rent. Her landlord had disposed of most of her belongings and rented her apartment to a new tenant.
When Alice realized what had happened, she began to lose hope. Six months after regaining some of her independence, depression took a toll on her body. She degenerated and no longer could live independently. Another six months passed. Alice had lost the will to live, and she passed away.
It's a sad story, but sadder still, because the story might have had an entirely different result if Alice had an estate plan.
Planning for the inevitable challenges in life can alter the course of direction when encountering health events.
In Alice's case, with no money saved and only a small income, she didn't have much of an "estate" to bequeath to anyone, so she believed that she had no need for estate planning. But what she did treasure was her health, her independence, and the people who were dear to her. When she lost those, she lost hope.
A little planning might have helped changed the outcome, and it wouldn't have taken much. Her primary estate planning concerns would have related to her health and maintaining the connection to those important to her. Her plan could have addressed both of these issues.
With the creation of a Health Care Directive (HCD), she could have provided assistance in making decisions for her health care. With a financial Power of Attorney, she could have given someone responsibility for handling her bills, rent or other financial responsibilities. That may have prevented Alice's loss of her apartment and her personal belongings.
And the combination of these would perhaps have avoided the guardianship.
Of course, there's no guarantee these would have extended her life, but it's likely that it would have improved the quality of her remaining years.